Task Inertia

Task Inertia

When we are faced with an uninteresting project, or a project that’s so large we can barely contemplate finishing it, we get stuck. We pace around the office, we chat with coworkers, we think about how we should approach it, we go get lunch, we go to happy hour, and we fall asleep thinking, “shit, I didn’t do anything on this project today.”

And yet we’ve had times where we entered a state of flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. Time seems to breeze by as we whimsically get our work done, making stepwise progress toward the completion of our project. We look back on “flow days” as some of the greatest days of our lives.

So what’s wrong now? Why can’t we just seem to get back to that flow state? Why is the mere idea of opening our word processor, admin panel, or design software so daunting? Why can’t we simply do the work?

It’s something I call task inertia. Task inertia is the force that makes it incredibly hard to get started on a project, and incredibly easy to give up when you’re just starting your work. This force holds us back on projects that take a few hours and projects that take a few months. It’s universal and we all have to deal with it. It’s just like actual physical inertia, which defines how much force is required to move an object in a state of rest or to redirect an object in motion.

The way through task inertia is to apply enough force to the task. Think about pushing a heavy box on a frozen lake or river. The initial force to get it going seems harder to pull off. That’s because every unit of force you apply up to a certain point does absolutely nothing. It’s only when you overcome the inertia that it gets moving and, as we all know, it’s way easier to continue moving an already moving object.

Specifically, you overcome task inertia by sitting down and working. As Steven Pressfield says, “Writing isn’t hard, it’s sitting down to write that’s hard.” Here are some tactics I use to make it easier to get started, whether it be coming up with a new marketing strategy, making the weekly newsletter (which I’m so behind on), or writing a simple post like this one:

  • Listen to [email protected] or one song on repeat on Spotify (today was Mercy by Kanye West)
  • Commit to 20 minutes of non-distracted work
  • Turn off all notifications

The most important part is that initial 20 minutes. You won’t feel like working during that time, but I guarantee you that if you get through 20 minutes you’ll stop thinking about how hard what you’re doing is and you’ll begin to enter flow. Maybe it’s more like 40 minutes for you, but commit to it.

Once you get past the inertia, and the ball is rolling, it will feel a lot easier and you’ll possibly even start having fun.

Ryan Chatterton
[email protected]

Ryan is the founder of Coworking Insights, a coworking media platform focused on delivering unique and in-depth insights for coworking founders and their teams. He’s the Marketing Director at Habu, a quickly growing coworking management platform that is simple, fast, and intuitive for managing recurring billing, bookings, and other admin tasks. Formerly with Impact Hub and PARISOMA, Ryan now has over 4 years of combined experience in a variety of roles in the coworking industry, including marketing, events, operations, sales, software, and partnerships. He’s a digital nomad and a lover of wine and tacos.

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